The first cave one encounters at the Ajanta site, the so-called "Cave 1" happens to be among the most exquisitely decorated. It is one of the 'newer' caves in Ajanta, carved as a vihara (monastery) in the 5th century AD, during the Mahayana period in which the depiction of Buddha was common practice. Its façade consists of a colonnaded portico intricately carved with scenes of the life of Buddha. The portico leads into the main hypostyle hall which boasts richly sculpted columns, incredible murals depicting vivid Buddhist imagery, and a colourful ceiling painted with floral motifs. Residential cells for the monks can be found on the sides of the main hall, while the inner sanctuary is at the end facing the entrance. A large Buddha statue in his preaching position dominates the shrine.
In the middle of the hall is a stupa with an image of the Buddha in a sermon pose, seated as on a chair. Look up to the ceiling and admire the ribbed effect as on a human form. One painting of an expressive face of some celestial being is all that remains of the various painting on the ceiling.
There are three entrance to this cave which has numerous statues of the Buddha, including a sleeping one of the left-hand side of the cave. In this statue, we see the figure of the Buddha lying on his right side with his right hand supporting his head. A little further on is the Temptation of the Buddha by Mara and his beautiful daughters. This is a finely carved relief with the female form celebrated in all its glory.
This cave has a shrine with the statue of the Buddha in a teaching pose. There are two standing Boddhisatvas on either side of him, each with a flywhisk on their right shoulders. Only the chisel marks remain on the ceiling of the shrine as most of the murals have faded away. A small portion remains in parts of the cave, each as beautifully painted as in the other caves. The pillars are also intricately carved.
This unfinished hall has a statue of the Buddha in the lotus pose with the arms at chest height as though explaining a point. Not to be missed are the images of two deer seated below him, again reminiscent of the Buddha’s first sermon after attaining Enlightenment at the Deer Park at Sarnath. On top of the shrine are smaller images of the Buddha, again in the lotus pose.
This assembly hall is dated to be much later than the other chaityas but the older pattern, layout and ornamentation has been followed. Of special significance is the imitation of wooden rafters on the ceiling which resemble the ribs of a human body. There is a huge stupa in the centre of the hall with plenty of space all around. In the middle is a large statue of a standing Buddha. The pillars are equally well-decorated while the ceilings and the walls have numerous eye-catching murals. The façade of the cave is also richly decorated with innumerable sculptures of Buddha and other images.
Yet another shows a couple proceeding on a journey whilst a lady-in-waiting holds an umbrella over the head of the consort. The apsara with a bejewelled head gear is especially appealing. The ceilings of this cave are also full of detailed murals but are larger and more cohesive than in the other caves.
This is yet another magnificent vihara not only for its beautifully carved pillars and sculptures but also for its sensuous murals of apsaras (nymphs), one of which was used (The Flying Apasara) during the Miss World Contest held in Bangalore, India in 1996. One detailed mural shows a king offering a cup of wine to his consort while a helper stands next to the consort ready to replenish with a wine jug. The expression of shy denial by the lady is delineated skilfully.
Most of the paintings in this cave have been destroyed but the ones that remain speak volumes of the skill of the painters. One depicts the forcible conversion of Nanda, the half-brother of the Buddha while the others convey a few jataka stories showing the Solomon-like wisdom of Mahosadha.
The Flying Couple sculpture in front of the main hall is truly eye-catching. This cave is one of the beautiful viharas (dwelling places or monasteries) of Ajanta. The front pillars, like the ones inside are richly carved while the paintings equals, if not surpasses others in the different caves of Ajanta.
Of special importance is a huge statue of the Buddha in a sermon pose seated, as on a chair. There is ample space behind and by the sides of the statue to perform a circumambulation right round it.
Don’t miss the different expressions of a sculpture hewn at the top of a pillar near the ceiling when you shine a torch at it from different angles.
The window above the entrance to this cave was first spotted by Capt. John Smith in 1819, over 1000 years after being hidden from view. This sighting led to the re-discovery of the astounding labour of love, faith, hope, religion and sedulity.
The cave is the earliest assembly hall and may have been the first cave to be excavated from amongst the 30 caves. It contains the largest number of paintings. Don’t miss the painting on the left wall behind the third pillar. This is a record of the progress of the painting going on in the cave. Unfortunately, many of the paintings have been desecrated by vandals who have scribbled on the paintings.
In the cave, two jatakas are still distinct. One is of Sama, the sole supporter of his blind parents, who was killed by an arrow of the king of Varanasi but later brought to life. The other story is about Chhaddanta, a royal elephant and his two wives. One wife gets him killed by a hunter as she thinks that her husband loves the other wife only. However, she dies out of contriteness when the hunter brings back the royal elephant’s tusks to her as proof of the killing. Shine your torch from the side (almost touching the painting) at the necklace worn by the ladies in the paintings and watch it glow.
Though most of the wall paintings are destroyed, those of the ceilings are remarkable and very representative of the skill of the painters. The themes are mostly of flying figures, fruits and of birds. There is one detailed painting of two comical characters, seated with the one of the left wearing coloured socks. Another painting is of innumerable small Buddhas in the lotus pose. Yet another great work of art is that of a lady who is begging for mercy from a king who is brandishing his sword. She is on her knees and is bent double with her forehead on the floor, her spine making a seductive arch. One more is of a dusky beauty with her left foot bent at the knee and her feet against a door jamb.
This cave is as magnificent as Cave 1 but is a smaller one. Even the pillars are as richly decorated as those of Cave 1. Watch out for the stone carving of a seated Hariti and her consort in a small chapel. Ladies may note the hair styles and the ornaments of the painted female forms, things that are a common theme is all the paintings at the Ajanta caves.
One of the best, so save it for the last. The pillars in the verandah are as richly decorated as the ones inside, especially the two middle columns at the back. On the frieze of the left hand-side chapel, except for the image of a monk, all the other three ominous sights that Buddha saw before his renunciation are there – a dead man, a sick man, an old man. The fourth and final sight was that of a monk.
Watch out for the four deer who share a common head, yet the sculpture does not look odd. There is such consummate skill at work here.
There is a huge image of the Buddha in the preaching pose in the sanctum. The two deer at the bottom of this statue refers to the first discourse of the Buddha gave at the Deer Park at Sarnath.
The paintings in this cave are par excellence, for example, the Bodhisattvas holding a lily. Yet another masterpiece is Mara’s (demon) temptation of the Buddha on the eve of his Enlightenment through his two beautiful daughters. On the walls, you may see innumerable jataka stories painted with loving care and precision. Yet another is the painting of a bull-fight.
The 30 caves were excavated (dug out, sculptures chiselled and paintings done) in two phases:
Phase 1=2nd century BC to 2nd century AD = Caves 9 & 10 (chityas) and Caves 12 & 13 (viharas)
Phase 2=3rd century AD to 7th century AD = Caves 19, 26, 29 (chityas) and Caves 1-7, 11, 14-18, 20-25, 27, 28, 30 (viharas)
Caves 3, 5, 8, 23-25, 28, 29 are unfinished.
If you are pressed for time, visit only caves 1, 2, 9, 10, 16, 17, 19, 26.